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Paper's Greco ad raises ethics issue

The Tribune won't repeat an ad in which the mayor endorsed the newspaper. The ad raised a question about the paper's objectivity.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2002


The Tribune won't repeat an ad in which the mayor endorsed the newspaper. The ad raised a question about the paper's objectivity.

TAMPA -- On the back page of the South Tampa section of the Tampa Tribune, a color photograph of Mayor Dick Greco stretched over one-third of the page.

The accompanying splashy type wasn't a major news story or a critical analysis of City Hall. It was a Tribune ad -- using the mayor to get readers to buy the newspaper.

"I read the Tribune every day and have most of my life," Greco said in the ad. "It's my newspaper and it's our hometown newspaper. . . . I read the Tribune from cover to cover."

At the bottom was a telephone number for readers to call to subscribe.

The morning the ad appeared, Feb. 28, the mayor's staff raved about how good it looked.

But just nine days later, the Tribune renounced the ad. In a column last Saturday, executive editor Gil Thelen said the newspaper should not have used a public official like the mayor for an endorsement. It wouldn't happen again, said Thelen, who had not seen the ad before it appeared.

The episode gave the public a glimpse into the conflicts a newspaper faces when its efforts to be an independent chronicler of events clash with its efforts as a business to make money. Keeping the news and business sides of the newspaper separate can be a delicate task.

The idea for the ads came from a readership committee at the Tribune, which included news and business executives. The committee was looking for ways to increase subscriptions in South Tampa, where the St. Petersburg Times recently launched a weekly local section.

Greco said he first learned about plans for an ad featuring him when a young woman from the Tribune came by his office with a photographer. She asked if he could answer a few questions.

"I really didn't pay much attention," Greco said.

The day the ad was published, many people in the Tribune's newsroom, from executive editor Thelen on down, recognized the problem immediately.

For a journalist, the issue was crucial.

"The only asset a newspaper has is that its readers trust it -- and trust that it is not too cozy with the established forms of power in the community," said James Carey, a professor who teaches ethics at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City.

As news becomes a bigger business, the problem occurs more often.

"Every organization from the Tribune to the St. Petersburg Times to CNN faces these significant tensions and conflicts when it comes to journalism and business values," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school that owns the Times.

Several years ago, the Times ran a promotional ad in Pasco County that featured a water activist who later ran for office. When the editor who oversees news in Pasco saw the ad, he asked the business department to stop running it, which it did.

The conflict usually arises when media companies sell newspapers or news shows as they would any other product, said Stephanie Craft, an assistant professor who teaches ethics at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

"If everyone who worked at the paper -- the business side included -- didn't see journalism as any other product, but as a unique thing, they would be less likely to promote it as they said," Craft said.

The morning the Greco ad ran, Thelen went to talk to the Tribune's publisher. They agreed the ad shouldn't run again.

"This is a case of one part of the newspaper not knowing what another part of the newspaper is doing," Thelen told the Times. "It was all well-intentioned people, and nothing evil about the whole thing."

In the column telling readers about the Greco issue, Thelen said the paper shouldn't use public officials in ads.

But the Tribune already had run similar testimonials featuring Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, and Sue House, a civic volunteer who sits on the government agency that runs Raymond James Stadium.

Thelen told the Times that he didn't know the art museum's director is a city employee whose salary largely comes from tax funds. He said he would have to think more about the ad featuring House.

Kass said she participated in the ad to give the museum more exposure.

"We didn't look at it as endorsing the Tribune," Kass said. "We looked at it as a page that would promote the Tampa Museum of Art."

House said she doesn't consider herself a public official. She doesn't get paid to sit on the board of the Tampa Sports Authority, she said, although board members dine in a luxury suite at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games at taxpayers' expense and exercise control over public facilities.

The first public sign of discontent with the Tribune's Greco ad came from former Mayor Sandy Freedman. "Shame on you!" she wrote in a letter to the editor.

In an interview, Freedman said the ad not only hurt the newspaper, but also damaged the credibility of the mayor's office.

"You just don't do it," said Freedman. "It's not appropriate to be endorsing a business or product when you are in that kind of position. It is even more outrageous that the paper would do it."

Greco saw Freedman's letter, but he said he wasn't concerned by it.

"I don't pay a bit of attention to things like that or people writing letters," Greco said. "I do every day what is best and right, and keep trucking."

Greco didn't see the Tribune column in which Thelen called the ad a mistake. Last Saturday "may be the one day I didn't read it cover to cover," he said.

The Tribune won't have to worry about the ads anymore.

Market development director Ted Stasney says the Tribune has scrapped the ads with well-known figures. It now will run ads featuring ordinary citizens.

-- David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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